Prove you’re not a hypocrite, Betsy Hodges

Betsy Hodges’ remarks on SWLRT, delivered at the vote today on the staff recommendation for the Kenilworth corridor and freight reroute, strike me as hypocritical at best, childish at worst. She castigates the staff recommendation as entirely favoring St Louis Park (although acknowledging that SLP opposes freight rail proximity to station locations), but the “other, better alternatives” Hodges has publicly acknowledged are freight rail relocation alternatives, which, of course, only favor Minneapolis. So it’s duplicitous of her to imply she wants a compromise.

Now I can understand that as mayor of Minneapolis she wouldn’t want a compromise, but one thing she should want and claims to want is LRT. Her position opposing the staff recommendation carries the very real risk of stopping the SWLRT project, which is the only remaining opportunity in this region for massively improving transit in one fell swoop. Bottineau, Gateway, Rush Line and of course the streetcars are all peanuts without SWLRT, and probably depend on its completion for their success.

If Hodges had any record whatsoever of supporting transit in any way, I might believe her that she supports transit but is opposed to this particular project. But in every transportation decision that she’s had any part in, no mode but driving has been advanced in any significant way, so it seems more likely to me that Hodges is just another suburban politician blowing smoke to get the urban vote, all too common in Minneapolis (cough RT cough). The real test will be municipal consent, of course, but I don’t see any reason to celebrate a statement that opposes a badly needed step towards improving transit in the Twin Cities, and appears to do so for entirely parochial reasons.

In her short mayoralty, Hodges’ primary accomplishment seems to have been finding $1m to make driving in Minneapolis even easier. If she’s serious about transit, she has one of two options:

  • actually come up with an alternative that would somehow both please Saint Louis Park and Minneapolis, despite the fact that their disagreement is essentially binary; or
  • recognize that the immense benefits of SWLRT overshadow the minor problems with the Kenilworth route, that the legitimate process issues she identified in her remarks are can now only be useful to bring up as teachable moments, that a real leader would be gracious rather than petty in defeat, and lead her people towards the next step of mitigating their losses but also accepting the benefits of the situation, which in this case are substantial.

How Hodges speaks leading up to the municipal consent vote could make a difference, but to make these hypocritical remarks in the face of certain defeat, and then to publicize them, doesn’t give me hope that she’ll grow up, let alone act like the leader of a major American city.

4/3 update: Laura Yuen’s piece for MPR diminishes what little hope I had that Hodges will suck it up and do the right thing:

Andy Hestness, vice president of the Native American Community Development Institute in the Phillips neighborhood, suggested dropping the northern tunnel to preserve the 21st Street station, which he said is the best way Franklin Avenue buses in south Minneapolis could access the proposed light-rail line.

“It’s all about connectivity,” Hestness said.

Some committee members, eager to shave up to $60 million by eliminating one of the tunnels, seized on the idea. They asked Hodges her thoughts on the plan, but she said defending the shallow tunnels in any form put her in a difficult position.

The difficult position to which Hodges refers is, of course, deviating in any way from the position of the wealthy DFL donors that live along Kenilworth.

Question everything

So this week (Tuesday the 15th at 7pm to be precise) streets.mn, urbanmsp, the Minneapolis Bike Coalition, the U of M’s Interdisciplinary Transportation Student Organization and Minnesota Urban Studies Students Association, the League of Concerned Cyclists, Minneapolis Swimmers Against Swimmer’s Itch, and NASA are hosting a mayoral candidate forum on transportation. We all know how it will go – two hours of cracker jack talking points about streetcars and cycle tracks. In the interest of not being bored when I show up out of obligation, I’ve come up with some questions. With these questions comes a challenge: can you top them? My questions suck of course, but are yours any better? Prove it, post them in the comments on streets.mn! Anyway here goes my dreariest queries:

  • What will you do as mayor when a proposed piece of infrastructure that is a critical link in the city’s bicycle network is opposed by neighbors?
  • What does your ideal bus stop look like?
  • What is the number of your favorite bus route and why is that bus the best?
  • Should Metro Transit stop accepting cash fares on-board and why or why not?
  • Is it better to have most bus routes converge downtown or should they be arranged in a grid?
  • What is the value in retaining a bus route network structure that is nearly identical to the streetcar network?
  • What makes a street complete?
  • What is the primary purpose of a street?
  • What role should induced demand play in street design?
  • Is Minneapolis walkable and what makes it so?
  • What is your favorite restaurant to walk to?
  • How important is it to connect Minneapolis’ non-motorized transportation network to the networks of the surrounding suburbs?
  • Is it generally better for retail business parking to be accessed from a street with a curb cut or through an alley?
  • From a transportation perspective, what do you think makes Nicollet Mall successful or unsuccessful? What can be done to build on its success or improve on its failure?

Show me up! Stump the candidate! Post your questions at streets.mn!

You can’t take the bus out of the Nicollet Mall

 

Another pie-in-the-sky idea for Nicollet Mall (from the 1973 Mpls People Mover Study)

Another pie-in-the-sky idea for Nicollet Mall (from the 1973 Mpls People Mover Study)

Today on streets.mn I bemoan the lack of transit in the City’s plans for a Nicollet Mall redesign. Instead of a knee-jerk RFP looking for trendy urban design firms to put the same thing back where it is, only with sleek grey slate tiles instead of 90s-ish purple flagstones, they should have had a public process that asked looked realistically at how the Mall is being used (hint: primarily for transit), asked tough questions about its weaknesses (hint: too much surface-traffic interference, problematic passing at stops, rich people don’t like transit), and attempts to build on strengths (hint: it’s in the middle of downtown, there aren’t smelly dangerous cars everywhere).

I believe the outcome of such a process would have recommended a transit tunnel. Not only would that speed up buses by reducing interference (even after a number of stops were removed a few years ago, buses are still scheduled at an abysmally slow 6mph; the Mall’s speed limit, famously, is 10mph) but it would likely require an even further stop consolidation. That, in turn, if we dare to dream could allow enhanced stop facilities such as real-time displays and ticket vending machines, further increasing speeds. Of course, this alternative would allow for the maximum number of street-level pedestrian and public space amenities, maybe even the long-dreamed for high-quality north-south bikeway.

Not even I dare hope that any of this will ever remotely come true. The liberals in this town have had too much success talking about transit without ever doing much for it, and now they have the excuse of a streetcar sometime vaguely in the future to avoid real solutions for our real transit problems: gold-plated transit for some streets, miniature american flags for others. Anyway, dealing with our dysfunctional real world, I hope at the very least the design allows for buses to pass each other at stops. Buses that are ready to go but are forced to sit and wait for the bus in front of them may be the largest source of delays on Nicollet Mall (maybe behind gridlock). This could even be done with a curbless design. Of course it eliminates the possibility of a high-quality bikeway, which is why I prefer the transit tunnel. Seattle and its Pacific Rim geology got it done decades ago; why can’t we?

By the way, if it seems like I’m thumping on transit a lot, it’s because I am. I think transit is our best hope for a comprehensive transportation solution to the imminent existential threat of climate change, though of course increased opportunities to bike and walk will play a role (robot cars, not so much). The amazing thing is that we can get it done very quickly through better bus facilities; think a transformation of Twin Cities transportation in ten years (a 4T program?). What will it take to get people excited about buses? Neon undercarriages? Is there such a thing as a fixie bus?

The best laid plans

Last week the Transportationist noted and reposted the Comprehensive LRT System Plan for Hennepin County, a 1988 vintage addition to the Twin Cities’ sky-high stack of written-and-forgotten plans.  This particular collection of fantastical fireplace fuel was posted on the official site for the Southwest Transitway, presumably to display their staff’s inability to use a scanner (a deficit I share as you’ll shortly see).  The Transportationist concluded his post with a call for a map of the routes planned in the “1970s ‘Regional Fixed Guideway Study’”.

At last an opportunity to share the fruit of my many hours of sequestration in the Minneapolis Stewart L. Central Library!  I’m not sure if I have exactly the map he’s looking for, but I do have a few items that likely will be of interest.  The first comes from Rail Rapid Transit, a report produced by Vorhees & Associates for the MTC in 1969.

The other is the Fast Link System, which I got from a doc called Fast Link Rail-Rapid Transit for Minneapolis, produced in 1972 by Don Fraser’s City Coordinator IIRC in a desperate effort to influence the Met Council and the Legislature (aka the decision-makers) to choose a transit policy that would actually benefit the city.

I believe, based on the references I’ve stumbled on occasionally, that the Fast Link plan was the one that had the most support, as opposed to the Vorhees plan.  It’s kind of hard to tell based on the scan that I made a few minutes before the library closed, but most of the Fast Link plan was proposed to be subway, with a few aerial segments.  As the 70s slithered on, this plan seems to have evolved into an option that had PRT-like segments through the downtowns and at the University, and curiously split into two one-way segments in St Paul, one of which was proposed for University and the other for I-94.  This iteration appeared in the Met Council’s 1975 Automated Small Vehicle Fixed Guideway Report along with a more traditional subway plan.

I have to admit that I didn’t have a chance to read through this one in detail, so I’m not sure if these were plans that were being seriously advocated for or if they were merely sacrificial lambs.  This is the report that set high-quality transit back for decades in Minnesota, as it was forwarded by the Met Council to the Legislature, which promptly banned the study of fixed guideway rail transit (as will be seen later).  These rail plans were compared with the Met Council’s adopted transit policy, which favored a network express buses with possible people mover systems in the downtowns.  According to the report, the rail plans would somehow not have serviced non-downtown locations as well as express buses, and the non-PRT plan wouldn’t even have served the downtowns well.  35 years later we know what hooey that was, as anyone who’s attempted to take one of the routes in today’s highly developed express bus network anywhere besides Downtown Minneapolis or Downtown St Paul.  But I concede it’s possible that at the time they really didn’t know that people would be willing to walk a bit further in exchange for reliable, fast, frequent transit, just as they didn’t know that gently suggesting that cities not allow non-sewered large-lot development wouldn’t contain sprawl.  On the other hand, the apparent lack of effort to develop a true bidirectional express bus network for the next three decades is also compelling evidence that this “Report” was utter bullshit, designed to funnel state money into highways.

Anyway, my sense is that by this point transit advocates were feeling a sense of panic and despair comparable to that I imagine is currently being felt by the GOP, at least at the MN level.  This can be gleaned from the timeline provided in the 1988 Hennepin County LRT plan, which I would really love to have been able to just copy and paste:

Planning for a variety of fixed guideway transit systems has proceeded almost continuously in the Twin Cities since the late 1960s.  [Here I would have added “to little or no effect.”  -Alex] Some of the major events of that history include:

  • MTC sponsored analyses of various technologies, early 1970s
  • MTC – Small Vehicle Study, 1974
  • Minnesota Legislature prohibition of fixed rail planning, 1975 [! -Alex]
  • University of Minnesota Transitway, 1976
  • St. Paul Downtown People Mover, 1976-1980
  • Minnesota Legislature lifts prohibition of fixed rail planning, 1980
  • Light Rail Transit Feasibility Study, 1981
  • Hiawatha Avenue Location and Design Study – EIS, 1979-1984
  • I-394 High Occupancy Vehicle Roadway, 1982
  • University/Southwest Alternatives Analysis, 1985 (draft)
  • Metropolitan Council/RTB identify LRT as preferred mode in University, Southwest and Hiawatha Corridors; University is the priority corridor
  • LRT Implementation Planning Program, April 1985
  • Minnesota Legislature prohibition of fixed guideway planning, 1985 [This is not an accidental duplication – it apparently happened again.  How did this get past Perpich? – Alex]
  • Transit Service Needs Assessment, Regional Transit Board, 1986
  • A Study of Potential Transit Capital Investments in Twin Cities Corridors – Long-Range Transit Analysis, Metropolitan Council, December 1986
  • Minnesota Legislature lifts prohibition of fixed guideway planning, 1987
  • Comprehensive LRT System Planning for Hennepin County, 1988

So next time you’re feeling proud of Minnesota’s history of relatively sane governance, remember that the Legislature managed to interfere in what should be a technical decision not once but twice.  And lest you think that these poxes on transit are just a product of overreach by Republicans on the rare occasion that they gain complete power, the 1975 Legislature was overwhelmingly DFL, and Wendy Anderson of St Paul was in the Governor’s Mansion.  Of course, in 1975 it wasn’t necessarily an anti-transit attitude that was prevalent; more likely it was a misunderstanding of the nature of urban systems masqueraded as futurism in the form of People Movers and PRT.  This same Legislature, after all, further empowered the Met Council, which itself is a culmination of the suburban experiment – the failed idea of the Broadacre City, made more palatable in its rationalization of the overdelivery of infrastructure that’s inherent in such an individualistic urban form.

Anyway, in the above timeline is included the 1981 LRT Feasibility Study, which was produced by an apparently repentant (or possibly begrudging) Met Council.  This is available in a form that patrons of the Stewart J. Central Library can check out, which I did last summer, resulting in these atrocious scans:

West LRT

Southwest LRT

University LRT

Northeast LRT

And a summary sheet indicating that the fully built LRT system (including a Northwest line, which I didn’t scan for some reason but was probably pretty similar to the Bottineau LPA) would serve 32,900 more weekday passengers than an existing or minimally improved system, and would actually turn an operating profit of $4.8m a year.

With that, I’ll close the vault for now.  If you liked these and want more, don’t worry – I spend a lot of time at the library, and unlike our transit system, the archive of old transit studies is almost limitless.

To a mouse.

Viva Zoning and Planning!

The May 17th Zoning & Planning committee meeting is packed with some big ticket items.  If you’re like me, you’ll want to get your email pen ready to pester your council member about this stuff (assuming your council member is on this committee, that is – if you live in one of the seven wards whose council member isn’t on Z & P, you don’t get a voice).  Dock Street is once again on the agenda, along with the A Mill, Peavey Plaza, and a certain revolutionary.

Conceptual track/platform configuration from The Interchange Final Study from 2010

Dock Street is the most directly transportation-related of the four items, since the basis for the appeal by Hennepin County and MnDot of Hines’ proposed apartment complex is that the layout will constrain options in the rail corridor currently used by Northstar and proposed for use by several other future lines.  Action has been postponed for more than a month, but the recent Strib story makes it seem like they’ll actually act on it this time, possibly because Hines made a stink about the delay at the last Z & P meeting.  They have a point, as Hennepin County has known since 2006 that the Interchange was their preferred location for the hub of Minnesota’s rail facilities, and MnDot was given the opportunity to comment on the project in August of 2011 and at that time said only “No formal comment.”

Peter McLaughlin called this a “Kmart moment” with some hyperbole; it’s not clear that the apartments and the rail facilities are mutually exclusive, and based on the 2010 Interchange study it looks like the trail would have to cross Washington at grade anyway.  In that case I would tend to favor allowing the apartments to move forward; for me and others who use the trail to access Downtown an at grade crossing at Washington would actually improve the trail, which currently has awkward access to the area.  It seems like only recreational users would suffer from a grade crossing, although that would also make the trail more expensive to reconstruct.  It also seems like the Interchange is barely feasible due to the tightness of the site anyway, so it may be more worthwhile to spend the money that Hines would have extracted for further easements on a new study of passenger rail station possibilities in Minneapolis.

I hope they know what they’re doing – this would have been a great place to drink a beer.

The A Mill project in this initial phase is merely a reuse of a historic structure; this sort of development typically requires a lot of variances because historic structures were usually built before the zoning code was adopted, but since the structures already exist, these variances tend to be less controversial than they would be for a new structure that’s built to look like a historic structure.  From what I can tell from the complicated site plan, only a couple small additions would be made to the existing A Mill complex to accommodate a parking structure that would somehow be wedged into the center courtyard and mostly buried below the existing ground profile.  So here we run up against the City’s annoying practice of not publishing the actual appeal being heard in the Z & P meeting, and our only clue to the reason for the appeal is that the appellant is Kathleen Flynn Peterson.  They tossed us a bone in the form of the Planning Commission minutes, where Ms Peterson complained at length about the City’s process and made no comment on the form or use of the structure, which is the only thing the Planning Commission (or its appellate body the Z & P committee) has any say on.  As I mentioned last week, I have wistful feelings for the potential of past proposals for this site, but the only thing I don’t like about the current proposals are that they seem to waste the commercial potential of the location on the only beautiful street in Minneapolis.  My guess is this appeal will be denied, and the only significant hurdle the A Mill redevelopment will face will be at the Community Development committee meeting where the project’s financing will be debated.

Groovy plaza man

Peavey Plaza‘s last stand will be taken at the May 17th Z & P, where an appeal from Steve Kotke, the director of Public Works, will seek to overturn the Historic Preservation Commission’s decision to delay the demolition of the architectural gem for six months.  It’s sort of ironic that the City is now trying to destroy a historic resource that it claims is too expensive to rehab because it neglected to properly maintain it for decades, basically the exact situation for which the City created the Historic Preservation Commission, obviously thinking only of when slumlords do it, not major corporations/campaign donors.  My guess is that staff is too busy pretending that the bland proposed replacement has anything to do with the serene original to notice the irony.  It may not surprise you that I’m opposed to the demolition, but I expect the appeal to be upheld and our last chance to enjoy Peavey Plaza to arrive shortly.

A substandard, tax-forfeited lot fit for a founding father

Emiliano Zapata probably isn’t used to being the least controversial one around, but at this Z & P committee he may be.  But don’t worry, Emy, that doesn’t mean you’re the least interesting.  Apparently a statue of the founding father of the modern Mexican republic was donated to Minneapolis by the state of Morelos, home to our sister city of Cuernavaca, but no place was ever found for it and it seems to have languished in a supermercado up till now.  Soon it will join such luminaries as my first love Mary Tyler Moore and popular 19th century violinist Ole Bull and be displayed in a public space, a narrow tax-forfeited lot at 12th and East Lake.  But is .08 acres really enough space for this huge figure in the history of our neighbor to the south?  It seems like this might be the ideal place to create Minneapolis’ first reclaimed street plaza.  12th Ave S has T-alleys on both sides, so car access can still be preserved.  Just use planters to block off the space between the alleys and Lake St and you’ll have something closer to the grand plaza Zapata deserves (but small enough to program the smaller, temporary uses suited to reclaimed space without feeling too empty).

More space to roam for Zapata

Reclaiming street space for recreation and biking and walking?  Sounds like I tied it back in to transportation.  Viva Zoning and Planning!

Time’s the legislator

A fine batch of sausage

It turns out I may have misjudged Mike Beard when I accused him of being a fundamentalist ideologue; instead it seems he’s a energetic, charismatic and persuasive fundamentalist ideologue.  That of course makes him a much more dangerous opponent for transit riders; while he has not yet exactly confirmed my accusation that he is trying to destroy transit in the Twin Cities, it seems that even he would admit that he is trying to radically transform it, or at least its financing and governance.

My newfound respect or fear of Mike Beard comes from watching House Transportation Policy and Finance committee meetings.  I’ve never taken the drastic step of viewing legislative proceedings before, but the unusually high number of anti-transit bills in this session led me to tape my eyelids and hope for the best.  The fruit of my boredom is the following short summary of most of the transit related bills that got a hearing this year.  I didn’t view any hearings on their Senate companions (if they have them) because the Senate only offers audio, and apparently I need the eye candy of watching the sausage being made (metaphors have rarely been so disgustingly mixed).  As such, my summaries will be skewed from a House perspective.  At this point in the session some of these bills appear stalled, but I think they will benefit from wider public awareness, i.e. people googling “sausage” and getting this post in the results.

HF2685 Metro Transit service fare increases required  This bill as described in my last Beard-bashing post was killed, but in a twist of the knife has been appropriated as a vehicle for an omnibus transportation bill (but not the omnibus transportation policy bill, which you’ll see is below).  The bill contains some other heinous provisions that I’ll describe below, but does not as of writing contain the transit-slashing vindictive fare increase.

HF2852 Distance-based transit fare surcharge pilot program established for replacement service transit providers  It’s not necessarily a bad idea to use a distanced-based or “zone” fare system, but the language in this bill only allows an increase in fare for distance, which could be a problem for short-distance express service.  This bill has been incorporated into the omnibus transportation bill, so it has a pretty good chance of passing.

HF2473 Transportation public-private partnership pilot program and related regulations established  The Legislature is graciously allowing MnDot to propose a public-private partnership with a selected private company, but not to accept a public-private partnership that a private company proposes out of the blue.  The bill actually suggests a project for the pilot program, the Mississippi River crossing that would connect I-94 to US-10 near Clearwater, but I mention it here because the bill ignores a potential application to transit, although it doesn’t expressly forbid it.

HF2387 Greater Minnesota transit funding provided, bonds issued, and money appropriated  There’s usually some fairly general bond money for Greater Minnesota transit in the bonding bill; this bill would have provided $10m, but that got shrunk to $2.5m in the final House version.  The Senate seems to have upped it to $4m, and I’d guess it will end up around there.

HF2321 Metropolitan transit service opt-outs authorized  DFLer Bev Scalze makes this session’s transit-wacking bipartisan with her bill to reopen opt-outs for suburban municipalities.  She got sympathy from the committee for her dissatisfaction with her community’s transit service, and this bill has been incorporated into the omnibus transportation bill listed above as HF2685.  I would like to take this opportunity to conjecture that Rep. Scalze has never taken the bus, or else she perhaps would have not introduced this bill that is guaranteed to make Twin Cities transit more confusing.

HF2271 Minneapolis to Duluth high speed passenger rail funding provided, bonds issued, and money appropriated  Alas, ’twas not to be funded, but just about every DFLer with a district along the proposed route signed as an author.

HF2155 Central corridor light rail line property valuation increases limited  Here’s a fun one – legislatively limiting the increase in property values caused by Central LRT.  Of course, they’re only limiting the increase in taxable value, not sale value.  No one wants any pain with their pleasure, I guess.  The Senate version actually got referred to the committee on Taxes, but the House version is just sitting there.

HF1284 Omnibus Transportation Policy  Bus use of shoulders is expanded by this bill, both in terms of where and how fast.  On the where side, authority will be given to counties and cities to allow buses to use shoulder on roads that they own.  On the how fast side, MnDot will be able to raise the speed limit for buses on shoulders in specific locations after conducting a study, which would have prevented the bullshit reasoning for restriping a bus shoulder as a general traffic lane and arguing that it will improve bus speed.

HF1943 Metropolitan Council transit funding provisions modified and HF2696 Metropolitan Council; formula changed for assistance to cities and towns with replacement transit service  Mike Beard worked tenaciously this year to redistribute funds from Metro Transit to suburban opt-outs; one of his efforts took the form of HF1943, which attempts to restore cuts that the Met Council made to opt-out funding as a method of dealing with their own budget cuts.  In the March 7th meeting, Met Council Gov’t Affairs Director Judd Schetnan responded by pointing out that most of the opt-outs had reserves equaling 150% of their annual budgets, implying that they could whether these cuts relatively easily.  HF1943 doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, perhaps because Beard found a better way to redistribute money to the suburbs in HF2696.  This bill nearly doubles the amount of MVST money that goes to opt-outs, and has been included in HF2685, which looks likely to pass.

This being a bonding year, there were also many transit projects that got their own capital funding bills, including NLX, Bottineau, Southwest, a park-and-ride in Maple Grove, a transit center in Duluth (rehab of the gorgeous Depot maybe?), the Lake Street transit station, and many more.  None were included in the bonding bills, which only nodded to transit in the House’s version, which included $1m for upgrades to track between St Paul and Hopkins, potentially for use on Red Rock commuter rail or “HSR” to Chicago.  The final bonding bills may change in the conference committee, though, so now’s the time to contact your legislator and ask they listen to the extraordinary popular support for the Southwest Transitway.

Finally, the instrument of Mike Beard’s divine vengeance on Metro Transit is a bill that seems to not yet be introduced, but to which Beard devoted an entire meeting of his committee, and which has gotten some attention at MinnPost and the Strib.  His proposal is to create a transportation planning agency separate of the Met Council and to fund it through property taxes (again) instead of the general fund.  Since it hasn’t yet been introduced, I doubt it will pass this session, which gives me more time to formulate my thoughts on it.  Look for another Beard-bashing post here in the next couple weeks.

The future of transit in Minnesota?